Florida Restaurant Customers Served Phony Grouper

At many restaurants around Florida, the specialty of the house is a slab of grouper, blackened, grilled, stuffed or encrusted with pecans, sometimes on a roll, maybe with a slice of Bermuda onion. But not at Richard Gonzmart's place.

Gonzmart, whose family has owned the Columbia restaurant in Tampa's Cuban-American Ybor City section for four generations, won't serve grouper, because he can't be sure he is getting the real thing from his suppliers.

Many restaurants in Florida have been caught passing off Asian catfish, tilapia or other cheaper species as grouper. Fake grouper is by far the biggest food-misrepresentation problem Florida inspectors handle, and it has turned up in all corners of the state — even at the Capitol cafeteria.

"I'm not going to take that chance because my reputation is more important than keeping grouper on the menu," Gonzmart said. "It's not worth it to take a short cut. If grouper is $20 a pound, so be it, but if we buy it for $20 a pound and it's not grouper, that's a problem."

The Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation, which regulates restaurants, found 139 cases of something other than grouper being sold as the fish between January 2006 through the end of last October — more than half of all food misrepresentation cases statewide during that time. The runners-up were 75 cases of fake crab and 34 cases of fake tuna.

"I had no idea. It's just a huge amount," said Department Secretary Holly Benson.

The problem has gone on for years but is receiving more attention lately.

About a year ago, an owner of two Florida Panhandle seafood companies was sentenced to prison after federal authorities caught him selling more than a million pounds of Asian catfish labeled as grouper.

In the Miami area, inspectors walked into a food processing plant and found workers taking 6,000 pounds of Vietnamese catfish that sells wholesale for about $2.50 a pound and repackaging it as grouper, which goes for about $6 wholesale.

And that hurts fishermen like Michael Athorn. He and his three-man crew spend up to 12 days 60 to 70 miles from shore in the Gulf of Mexico, trying to reach the 6,000-pound catch limit for grouper, which has to be caught on individual hooks.

Back on shore he has often found restaurants advertising grouper and putting something else on a plate.

"It's something that's aggravated us for a long time," he said. "I've embarrassed girlfriends and wives in the past by making a big point of it in a grocery store, letting them know it wasn't what it was. I've embarrassed people that I've taken out to dinner by refusing a meal that wasn't really grouper."

State officials are becoming more aware of the problem. Benson's agency has doubled the fine for restaurants from $250 to $500 for a first offense. Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson has posted a Web page with full-color, high-resolution photos that can show people how to distinguish real grouper — lean, thick, firm flesh — from thinner, darker fillets of Asian catfish.

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum hired a lab to perform DNA tests on grouper — or what was advertised as grouper — that investigators bought at 24 Tampa Bay-area restaurants. More than 17 of them were selling other types of fish, and McCollum reached settlements with all but one of them.

Among the substitutes were emperor fish, hake, sutchi, bream and green weakfish.

The lab was not asked to test grouper from grocery stores. But the wife of a lab scientist brought home some fillets a supermarket was selling as grouper, and the scientist took the fish to the lab and tested it.

"I don't know what it was. It wasn't grouper, that's all I do know," said scientist David Price.

Now Florida is going after bigger fish: distributors. The attorney general has subpoenaed records of several, including the biggest distributor, Sysco Food Services of West Coast Florida Inc.

"We've been asked to participate with cleaning up the industry and we have complied," said President Carl Cannova. "Quite frankly, we agree with the attorney general."

Sysco began its own random testing program about a year and a half ago. Cannova said a few shipments received shortly after testing began turned out to be other fish, and they were immediately kicked back to the supplier.

"Never, never, did we ever knowingly sell something as grouper that wasn't grouper," Cannova said.